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Literature / The Ghost Writer

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The Ghost Writer is a 2004 psychological horror novel created by Australian poet and novelist John Harwood. The novel has won literary awards in Australia and major International Horror award.

Gerard Freeman is a lonely, awkward child growing up in the little town of Mawson, Australia. With a distant father and an almost Friendless Background, Gerard finds solace in the stories his neurotic mother, Phyllis Hatherley, tells him of her childhood at an English country estate called Staplefield. One day, however, Gerard discovers a photograph of a beautiful, unknown woman and the manuscript of a ghost story written by his maternal great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley, who lived and died at Staplefield. Although Gerard is desperate for more information on Viola and Staplefield, his mother chooses to stop talking about them. This, of course, pretty much guarantees that Gerard himself will some day journey to England in search of his mother’s childhood home.


Gerard’s boring life seems to brighten a little when he, by chance, obtains a penfriend from England named Alice Jessell, a mysterious Ill Girl. Injured in the accident that killed both of her parents and confined her to a wheelchair, Alice refuses to either meet Gerard or send him a photo until she’s cured and walking again — something that she admits will require a miracle. How she looks is left to Gerard’s rich imagination, and he conjures images of a pre-Raphaelite beauty with milky skin and cascades of coppery hair. As Gerard grows into adulthood, his friendship with Alice is a growing constant in his life as is his obsession with Viola and Staplefield. When his mother dies, Gerard sets off for England in search of Staplefield and Alice, with whom he now fancies himself deeply in love.


This book is mostly written in first person narrative from Gerard's point of view, with the exception for letters from Alice and various stories within the story. These stories are the ghost stories written by the long-deceased Viola. They often turn up at the most improbable times and quite by chance. The ghost stories make up approximately one-half of this novel, and each is written in a distinctive style and voice that is quite different from Gerard’s first person narrative. The stories are both elegant and admittedly creepy.note 

Not related with the film, which is actually movie adaptation of another novel The Ghost. Also, not to be confused with 1979 American novel of the same name.


  • Absence of Evidence: When Gerard finds Anne's diary, he briefly finds it suspicious that even though Abigail Hamish claimed to have been Anne's best friend for years, there's not a single mention of her within its pages. But then again, Anne did leave her the Farrier house, so he figures it's nothing. It's not nothing—Abigail is an identity Anne assumed to fool him..
  • Affectionate Nickname: Phyllis' family referred her as "Filly."
  • Amoral Attorney: Averted with Harry Beauchamp in "The Ghost" story. He is very kind to his client.
  • And I Must Scream: Gerard finds a letter in the cellar which indicates that Phyllis ultimately locked Anne in the Farrier house's basement with no way out, allowing her to die of thirst. Not! Turns out that Anne faked the letter to mess with Gerard.
  • Arc Words: "Unto the third generation"
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Short of actually killing Gerald in their final confrontation, which he escapes by pure chance, Anne managed to pretty much sabotage and ultimately destroy the relationship between him and his mother by sending "The Revenant" to her, thus turning Phyllis into a paranoid wreck who believed Anne would kidnap him or worse if she let him leave the house. And of course, by manipulating him via "Alice", he essentially became her puppet for twenty-two years of his life. Before she dies, she also learns to her joy that the child Phyllis had with Hugh died in infancy—something she only learned thanks to Gerard's research.
  • Bit Character / Flat Character: Gerard's father, Graham, has very little appearance and importance in the story and it's unbelievably easy to miss when he died. He died sometime in Gerard's mid or late teens.
  • Bald of Evil: Alice/Anne's true form. In life Phyllis had tried to kill her by secretly exposing her to radiation from a Victorian-era fluoroscope. The radiation therapy and surgeries to save her from the cancer she developed left her head and hair destroyed but for one eye..
  • Cain and Abel: In the past Phyllis seduced Anne's fiancé and tried to kill her by exposing her to radiation from an X-Ray machine hidden in her room. Anne survived, but was horribly deformed by the radiation burns and the numerous surgeries necessary to keep the cancer from spreading across her head and body. When she finally dug up Phyllis's location, she sent her sister the manuscript for one of their grandmother's horror stories (in which similar events had occurred) in order to stoke her paranoia and started a Long-Distance Relationship with her teenaged son under an assumed name in order to manipulate his life, making Phyllis's last years miserable.
  • The Chessmaster: Anne spent around twenty years corresponding with Gerard as Alice, carefully leading him on the path to discovering the dark secrets of his family, ultimately planning to kill him.
  • Consummate Liar: In one of her letters, Alice claims there isn't any kind of scar or wound on her face. Suuurreee....
  • Cool Big Sis: From "The Ghost" story, Cordelia attempted to be this for her cold little sister, Beatrice. It doesn't quite work much because for no reason, Beatrice blames her sister for their parents' death. Also, Anne to Phyllis... initially.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: It's complicated with Phyllis. One of plot points in the story is Gerard's attempts to discover her past right from her childhood.
  • Death of a Child: The first Gerard, the one born of Phyllis and Hugh's affair, died while still a baby.
  • Domestic Abuse: From "The Ghost" story, Cordelia de Vere's paternal grandfather, Ruthven de Vere, was responsible for the Facial Horror that his wife, Imogen, suffered. One of the main reasons for this is because he's convinced his wife was cheating on him with Henry St. Clair. She's not, but he doesn't want to listen.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: This is one of the reasons Alice says she refuses to include a picture of herself—it would have to be of her in her chair, and she doesn't want Gerard to think of her that way.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: It's actually rather hard to decide whether the first Gerard's conception was consensual or not. What's known is that Phyllis aggressively seduced her sister's fiancé, Hugh Montfort, leading to their affair and the first Gerard's conception. When Anne discovered this, Phyllis was naked and "on his top, riding on him", and he appears to be unmoving (unconscious?). Yet, Hugh is mostly blamed instead of Phyllis, who seduced him. He tried to apologize, Anne doesn't want to forgive him, and it's ambiguous whether Anne or Phyllis caused his death.
  • Facial Horror: From "The Ghost", Cordelia's paternal grandmother also suffers similar fate and she has to cover most of her face with a veil. Also, when Gerard meets Alice/Anne, her face is horribly deformed.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Quite a few from Alice's correspondence. For starter, she states in her very first letter to Gerard that she lives not too far from, or perhaps around the same place as, Phyllis' childhood home. She also asks Gerard to give her his and his parents' photograph, but refuses to give her own photo to him.
    • The first of Viola's stories, "Seraphina", is about a man who becomes entranced with the painting of a woman, falling deeper and deeper in love with someone who doesn't exist, until his life revolves around the painting.
    • While exploring the Farrier house's library, Gerard happens to find couple of copies of books about radiation which seem to have been misplaced, showing that Viola's family had been interested in early x-ray experiments. Once you learn the twist, it turns out that misplacing wasn't so accidental.
  • Friendless Background: Gerard has had very few, if any, friends since his childhood.
  • The Ghost: Alice never appears in the story until the climax, and she only interacts with Gerard via letters before then. There's also Abigail Hamish, an old lady who claims she knows about Phyllis' childhood. They're the same person, Anne Hatherley.
  • Happily Adopted: From "The Ghost", Cordelia and Beatrice's parents are already dead and they live with their paternal grand-uncle, Theodore, and his sister, Una.
  • Haunted House: Phyllis' childhood home. This is where the story's climax takes place.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: From one of the letters, Alice's nurse claims Alice is this. From "The Ghost", Cordelia is also very kindhearted to her great-uncle / Parental Substitute.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Phyllis, of Younger than She Looks variety.
  • Ice Queen: Beatrice from "The Ghost" story is extremely cold, especially to her older sister. Also Phyllis, although she has a few defrosting moments to Gerard.
  • Ill Girl: Alice Jessell.
  • Kissing Cousins: From "The Ghost" story, Cordelia's paternal grandmother, Imogen, and grand-uncle, Theodore, was romantically involved. Their relationship was broken up by her father, Horace Ward (Cordelia's great-grandfather), who strongly opposes it.
  • Life Imitates Art:
    • In-universe, many of the stories of Viola Hatherley seem to have remarkable relevance to Gerard's relationship with Alice, as many of them are about a character becoming obsessed with someone or something unreachable. With the reveal of Alice as Anne Hatherley, Phyllis's sister and Viola's other granddaughter, it seems that Anne was inspired by these stories to create an unreachable character for Gerard to become obsessed with as part of her revenge upon Phyllis.
    • In the past, Anne happened upon "The Revenant" (written over a decade beforehand), and was struck to realize just how much the events in her life eerily paralleled it—down to falling in love with a man who'd come to her home to appraise some pictures. Try as she might to avoid the fates of Caroline and Beatrice, the man she loves is still seduced by her sister, just as in the story.
  • Long-Distance Relationship: Gerard and Alice. Not only do they only interact via letters, but also they never even see each other until the climax of the story.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Subverted. At first it seems that Gerard might be the child of Hugh Montfort, until you realize the numbers don't add up—Phyllis's affair was in 1949, and "our" Gerard was born in 1963 or -64. It turns out that the original Gerard died in infancy and ours was named after him. This means that Graham may be his real father after all.
  • Misplaced Retribution: Even though Gerard had nothing to do with Phyllis seducing Hugh or attempting to murder Anne, Anne still seeks to punish him.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: From "The Ghost" story, and Played for Drama: Imogen de Vere is mistaken for cheating with her husband's friend, Henry.
  • My Beloved Smother: Phyllis is fiercely overprotective and possessive on her son. She is the most responsible for her son's Friendless Background. She's afraid Anne will somehow find him and take him away from her—and in a way, she did.
  • Mysterious Woman: Phyllis fits this trope to a T, to the point that she hides away her past and dark secret. Even Gerard is afraid of her at times because of her mysteriousness.
  • Nocturnal Emission: Sometime after he starts the pen-friendship romance with Alice, Gerard has an Erotic Dream where he has sex with her. When he wakes up, he found his blankets and pajamas wet. He then tells Alice about this in his letter. In her reply, Alice claims that she had a similar dream at roughly the same time.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Anne is Type 1 (motivated by her desire to avenge her death).
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Alice claims her parents are killed in an accident which also caused her legs' disability.
    • From "The Ghost" story, Cordelia's parents are dead and she and her sister are adopted by their paternal family.
    • Gerard's father died rather very early in the story. His mother, Phyllis, also died right before the start of the novel's second-half.
  • Posthumous Character: Viola Hatherley has been long dead, but her ghost stories are somehow connected with Gerard and Phyllis. Also, Phyllis, for the second-half of the novel. Gerard is motivated to find out about her childhood background after her death. Also, Phyllis' sister Anne... until the novel's climax.
  • Revenge: Anne Hatherley's entire motivation.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: From "The Ghost" story, Theodore is the poor suitor to his cousin and lover, Imogen Ward. Ruthven de Vere is the rich suitor, and he won her thanks to her father.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Gerard's Long-Distance Relationship with Alice dominates his life to the point where by the time the main action of the book begins, he doesn't have any other deep relationships, romantic or friendly. When revealing herself to have been "Alice" all along, Anne taunts him by pointing out how he could have had relationships with real women instead of chasing after his dream girl for over twenty years.
  • Shipping Torpedo: Downplayed. Phyllis isn't supportive on Gerard's pen-relationship with Alice, but she doesn't actively try to wane their love, either.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: Cordelia's reaction when she learns that Ruthven de Vere, her paternal grandfather, is responsible for her grandmother's Facial Horror. There's also the sin of Gerard's mother, Phyllis, to Anne, for cheating with Anne's fiancé.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Theodore and Imogen's relationship from "The Ghost" story are broken up by Imogen's father who strongly opposes their relationship.
  • Story Within a Story: Lots. As mentioned above, about half of the book is filled with them. However, only one of them is the mostly connected with Gerard and Phyllis, the story that simply titled as "The Ghost".
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: One of Viola's ghost stories involves this trope as said story's major plot point.
  • Tragic Villain: All of Anne's evil deeds are are vengeance for her jealous sister seducing her fiancé and trying to kill her with radiation.
  • Walking Spoiler: Anne Hatherley, Phyllis' long-dead older sister. Talking too much about her here will spoil the majority of the plot and her motivation throughout the story.
  • Widow Woman: Phyllis. Her husband Graham John Freeman died rather very early in the story.
  • Woman Scorned: Anne, when she found out that Hugh was cheating on her with Phyllis. One interpretation implies it was involving Death by Woman Scorned, too.
  • Younger than She Looks: Gerard states that his mother looks older than her actual age.